College vaccine mandates saved lives, report finds

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Dive Brief:

  • Colleges with COVID-19 vaccination requirements reduced the number of positive cases and related deaths in surrounding areas, according to a July working paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research.
  • Over 13 weeks in fall 2021, vaccination requirements at four-year residential colleges dropped the number of COVID-19 deaths by roughly 7,300, or about 5% of all deaths from the coronavirus during that time. The mandates also reduced new COVID-19 cases by 339 per 100,000 county residents.
  • The strongest takeaway was that area residents benefited from the colleges’ requirement, even though it was the students who got the vaccine, according to Michael Lovenheim, an NBER research associate and co-author of the paper.

Dive Insight:

Almost 700 colleges have required students to get inoculated against the COVID-19 virus since spring 2021, according to the report. Months later, the beginning of the 2021-2022 academic year coincided with the spread of the delta variant, leading to a surge in positive cases across the country.

The return to class affected off-campus communities differently, depending on the college’s student vaccination rules.

Researchers looked at 553 counties with at least one four-year college that offered residential education. In each area, COVID-19 cases in counties with or without mandates followed a similar trajectory until the fall semester began. Once students returned for classes, both the cases and the positivity rate declined in counties with mandates, leaving them with lower shares of cases per people compared to non-mandate counties.

The traditional college student is less likely to be severely affected by coronavirus than the general population, but their vaccination protects them and those around them, according to Lovenheim.

“They can get it, but the disease seems to have less impact on the young, and the death rate among people who are college age is very, very low,” he said. “Having a vaccine mandate for a population that itself is not very at risk, but can spread it very easily, has large impacts on these local communities.”

This was especially true in areas where college students are a large portion of the local population.

“There are places that you may think of as college towns where, when the students come in, all of a sudden the population doubles,” said Emily Cook, co-author of the report and economics professor at Tulane University. “Those places saw very large effects. The places where college students are just a drop in the bucket? Not so much.”

Lovenheim, a policy analysis and management professor at Cornell University, compared Ithaca, New York, and New York City as an example.

“In Ithaca, Cornell is such a huge part of the population,” he said. “But if you go to New York City, Columbia students are a much smaller portion of the people there. We found these spillover effects had a much bigger impact in a place like Ithaca.”

Both Cook and Lovenheim noted a lack of ambiguity in the report’s findings.

“The surprising thing was how clean and robust the results are,” Lovenheim said. “I’ve done a lot of research, and things rarely turn out cleanly.”

Researchers went into the project with a hypothesis, but not an expectation of what the data would show, Cook said.

“We started with a question that was going to be interesting, regardless,” she said. “If it said that the vaccines don’t work, that would have also been a very important finding. But there just wasn’t a way to beat these findings out of the data.”

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